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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Solar Impulse

Switzerland is about to complete a long-range solar plane project
7 July, 2009 - 00:00

SWITZERLAND — After his first balloon flight to the upper atmosphere, Auguste Piccard said that the point in question is not that man can fly further and reach planets; it is how man can get organized so as to make life more comfortable on the planet Earth. Solar energy can help. Recently Switzerland once again tested its megaproject called ‘Solar Impulse,’ ranking with the world most daring ones in the spheres of ecology and aeronautics. Before Solar Impulse HB-SIA, the first aircraft designed to fly both day and night without fossil fuel or pollution, was presented to the general public, The Day‘s correspondent visited the SI construction site at D bendorf Airfield, not far from Zurich.


Looking for renewable energy sources has been on the world agenda for decades. There are homes and apartment buildings with roofs serving as solar batteries; there are solar-energy-powered car models. None of this can surprise average Western Europeans, as evidenced by the compact, yet ever-prospering, country of Switzerland that seems to have added to its kudos — cheeses, chocolate, watches, and banks — a policy that can be regarded as the world’s most advanced one in terms of ecology. Switzerland pays serious attention to ecological projects and studies aimed at renewable energy sources. The Swiss government and the people have long realized that such renewable sources have great potential.

Solar Impulse is a project to design the lightest and most technologically advanced solar-energy-powered aircraft expected to fly round the world in 2011. According to the authors of this project, Solar Impulse will circle the globe in 30 days, without any conventional fuel and other discharges, including flying during the night. Its solar batteries are designed so they can keep the engine running during the night. Proof of the seriousness of this project is its budget (€70 million) and the names of the honorary members of the crew: Paulo Coelho; Jean Verne, Jules Verne’s great grandson; Buzz Aldrin, the Lunar Module pilot on Apollo 11; Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel, and other noted personalities. This project is supported by a number of leading research centers and companies of the world and the European Space Agency.


The Solar Impulse workshops — hangars, to be precise — are located in the military town of D bendorf, not far from Zurich. Naturally, there are security arrangements with no-cameras-allowed and look-but-don’t-touch rules. There is a special press room where you are told about the project and shown video tapes. Outside, everything that is one the other side of red tape can only be watched by the visitors.

Our group of journalists from all over Eastern Europe was met by SI officials, including Andre Borschberg, a pilot and one of the project coordinators. His partner, the adventurous celebrated scholar in the third-generation — Bertrand Piccard — was then away from Switzerland, attending to matters relating to the project. We were first taken to a huge hangar. Inside, dozens of engineers were mounting hundreds of solar cells on the aircraft’s 61-meter wings. Borschberg explained that it was a sophisticated process and that covering the whole wing with these cells would take another three months.

“We’re building the first prototype which is a bit smaller and weighs 1.6 tons,” he said, adding that the aircraft would have “a revolutionary design, with the size disproportionately large for its weight and the wingspan of 80 meters, like that of Airbus A380.” This is need to “accommodate the largest possible number of solar cells and to lower the deceleration rate. Whereas A380 weighs 560 tons, our Solar Impulse will weigh two tons! Despite its light weight, our aircraft will endure extreme strain.”

In fact, they kept working on the project during our visit, and the workers hardly paid any attention to us. Most engineers were young people hailing from a number of countries, top-notch experts in the field. The SI project has a team of more than 35 specialists and over a hundred experts are consulted. More than 60 special developments involving new materials and technologies have been used in the project since 2003.

We were then guided to another hangar with the flight simulators. Each was an exact replica of the SI cabin, controls, and the pilot’s helmet and oxygen mask. The walls were actually multimedia screens that simulated the pilot’s view of the planet when airborne. There was room for only one pilot, so using simulators was of the utmost importance.

Borschberg said: “Here one feels as though actually airborne, on board this solar-energy-powered aircraft; here one can test one’s skills as a pilot. Handling this unique aircraft is easier said than done, considering that both flight conditions and the aircraft are unusual. However, I can assure you that the most unusual thing is to know that you are the first!”


Solar Impulse is not the first solar-energy-powered aircraft design, but undoubtedly the most ambitious one. None of the preceding projects anticipated flying such an aircraft at night. Solar Impulse’s lithium batteries installed in the wings will be charged during The Day, while on the airfield, so they will take care of its takeoff and flying throughout the night.

SI’s solar-energy-powered engine has an average capacity of 12 hp per 24 hrs, the same as that achieved by the Wright brothers who, on Dec. 17, 1903, made the world’s first controlled, powered, and sustained heavier-than-air human flight. This engine capacity is very small, of course, so the scientists on the team are working to optimize the aircraft’s efficiency and reducing its weight. Since there is room for only one pilot in the cabin, this pilot has to meet rigid requirements, being able to control the aircraft at an altitude of 12,000 meters, in highly unfavorable pressure and temperature conditions. The final design will have a pressurized cabin with controls and other facilities taking care of carbon dioxide and body humidity, allowing for long range flights. All this equipment must weigh as little as possible and consume the lowest possible amount of energy (so as not to reduce this aircraft’s speed).


Project Solar Impulse was launched in 2003. The first prototype was built in 2007 and the aircraft was actually tested the following year. After additional test flights, in October the project will culminate in a night flight. If everything works, the project designers will start working on another such aircraft model, so it will be able to fly all over the States, using only solar energy, and over the Atlantic in 2010. Borschberg and Piccard actually plan to fly around the world in May 2011, following the Tropic of Cancer. There will be stopovers on each northern continent, to change the pilot and to promote the project Solar Impulse, involving the media, scientists, and authorities. Every such flight will last 4–5 days, which is considered to be a maximum endurance rate for a pilot.

As soon as the project designers achieve the solar batteries’ maximum capacity and make this aircraft weigh less, Solar Impulse will carry two pilots and will be able to make longer flights. Only then a trip round the world by a solar-energy aircraft will become a reality.

Naturally, the first question that comes to one’s mind is why undertake such a costly project. Launching this kind of aircraft into serial production will take 10–30 years, even in an advanced European country or the United States. When asked this question, Borschberg and Piccard have the same reply:

“This is a very important challenge for us. Solar Impulse seems an impossible and ungrounded project, yet it is actually very important for all humankind. If we succeed in building an aircraft that can fly day and night, powered only by solar energy, this will be a message addressing the world, reading that we can! Solar Impulse is being developed primarily to change the energy consumption philosophy. We want the rest of the people to understand that the renewable energy sources can be used quite effectively.”

* * *

Bertrand Piccard is a noted scientist, psychiatrist by training, considered to be one of the fathers of the Solar Impulse project. He has made history, just like the three generations of the Piccard family. No other scholarly family has made such an impact on worldwide research as have Auguste, Jacques, and Bertrand Piccard.

On March 1, 1999, Piccard and Brian Jones set off in the balloon Breitling Orbiter 3 from Chateau d’Ox in Switzerland, on the first non-stop balloon circumnavigation around the globe. Their flight covered 45,755 km and lasted 19 days, 21 hours, and 47 minutes, setting the world record.

As a researcher, Bertrand Piccard strives to combine his family’s scholarly heritage with his own humanistic worldview and obsession with “the great adventure.” His grandfather Auguste Piccard was a friend of Einstein and Joliot-Curie and became famous for designing a spherical, pressurized aluminum gondola that allowed ascent to great altitudes (over 16,000 meters) without requiring a pressure suit. He made this flight and was the first human being to watch the planet Earth as a globe.

Subsequently, he and his son Jacques came up with the revolutionizing FNRS-2 bathyscaphe design. Bertrand and Jacques navigated it first down to 3,150 meters in 1953, and then Jacques Piccard navigated the bathyscaphe Trieste to the bottom of the Mariana Trench at 10,924 meters, the deepest location on the Earth’s crust under the world’s oceans. There he spotted a fish, which served as proof that there are currents between the ocean floor and surface. During Expo 64 in Lausanne, Piccard’s 166-ton mesoscaphe, the first ever tourist submarine, transported some 33,000 visitors to a depth of 60 meters in Lake Geneva. In the 21st century the adventurous family tradition is upheld by his grandson and son Bertrand with his brainchild Solar Impulse. Bertrand Piccard is teaching his team, charging them with his philosophy of ecomania and innovative spirit.

By Lesia KORYTSKA, special to The Day